China’s Crackdown on Hong Kong Democracy Threatens Religious Freedom Too

‘We are in a terrible situation,’ Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, told the Register Jan. 13.

Chairman of the Civic Party Alan Leong (front center) and other members  speaks during a pnews conference on Jan. 6 in Hong Kong. More than 50 Hong Kong opposition figures were arrested under the national security law, deepening a crackdown that the bishop emeritus has spoken out against.
Chairman of the Civic Party Alan Leong (front center) and other members speaks during a pnews conference on Jan. 6 in Hong Kong. More than 50 Hong Kong opposition figures were arrested under the national security law, deepening a crackdown that the bishop emeritus has spoken out against. (photo: Billy H.C. Kwok / Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — Security-law police officers in Hong Kong arrested 11 people on Thursday suspected of helping 12 Hong Kong pro-democracy activists escape to Taiwan last August. The action represents the latest in a series of crackdowns following the national security law imposed by the People’s Republic of China that came into effect last June. 

The arrests follow early morning raids on Jan. 6 of 55 people, including pro-democracy politicians and campaigners, who were then detained under the new law ­— “an incredibly serious development,” according to Benedict Rogers, chairman and co-founder of the human-rights organization Hong Kong Watch, who called it a “criminalization of democracy.” 

One of the first high-profile citizens of Hong Kong to face the brunt of the new regulations was Jimmy Lai, a Catholic entrepreneur and founder of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper. He was arrested last year along with eight others for taking part in an unauthorized pro-democracy march in 2019. 

Although granted bail under strict conditions in December, Lai was returned to custody days later and on Thursday was transferred to a maximum-security prison. Hong Kong has hired a British lawyer David Perry to prosecute the group at a trial beginning on Feb. 16.   

The latest consequence of the new law, which Hong Kong authorities say aims to “prevent, stop and punish acts and activities endangering national security,” has been the blocking of HK Chronicles, a Hong Kong news website. 

The site was taken down (the company has now created a new domain name) because it published articles related to anti-government protests. It is the first website to be affected by the sweeping new law. Its attempted removal has raised concerns it may be the first of many media outlets to face restrictions.

“We are in a terrible situation,” Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, told the Register Jan. 13. “The Hong Kong government is completely following the direction of Beijing. They accepted blindly this state security law. This law radically changed the situation.” 

The U.K. government has accused China of a “clear breach” of the Sino-British joint declaration, which was meant to guarantee the former British colony a high degree of autonomy under Chinese Communist rule, a constitutional principle Beijing called “one country, two systems.” 

Lord David Alton, a leading Catholic human-rights advocate in the U.K., told the House of Lords on Jan. 7 that the arrests the day before were a “grievous attack on democracy, human rights and the rule of law” and noted the increasingly evident “suppression of the right to protest and a real decrease in the rights to representation” in Hong Kong.

Nadine Maenza, head of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), told CNA this week that China’s crackdown on pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong was a pressing concern and a sign of China “spreading its influence” around the world.


‘Criminalization of Democracy’

The national security law, which Rogers describes as “truly absurd” and imposed “without debate or scrutiny,” is widely seen as deliberately vague to allow the authorities to act with impunity. 

“We are really living in terror,” said Cardinal Zen, who, in comments to the Register last June, warned of “very bad things to come” from the law and predicted it might be applied retroactively. 

He told the Register this week that the law “is taking away all guarantee of civil rights — nothing is safe anymore,” adding that the authorities can “arrest you without a warrant, search your home, bring you to court in mainland China, and you may not have the lawyers you’d like to have, and family members cannot visit you.” 

Both the cardinal and Rogers see the security law as the “criminalization of democracy.” It is one of a number of reasons why Hong Kong citizens have been fleeing the island. Parents of young children are also particularly anxious to leave, as the authorities are now imposing a “patriotic education, which means brainwashing,” Cardinal Zen said.  

The worsening human-rights situation in the once-flourishing territory predates the national security law. Speaking at the online launch this week of “The Darkness Deepens,” a report on China by U.K.’s Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, Nathan Law Kwun-chung, a young Hong Kong pro-democracy activist who was jailed as a political prisoner in 2017 before fleeing to Britain, said the situation in Hong Kong over the past four years has “deteriorated on a remarkable scale.” 

Simon Cheng, a former local employee of the British consulate-general in Hong Kong who also testified at the Jan. 13 online event, recalled how he was arrested on Hong Kong soil by Chinese state security in August 2019 on suspicion of spying for the U.K. government. He was then interrogated, tortured and forced to give a false confession. Other testimonies recounted how Hong Kong citizens have also been arrested abroad for actions not supportive of the Chinese Communist Party’s regime. 

Cheng said such “draconian” methods aimed at frightening Hong Kong citizens are commonplace and that the authorities can “extend detention,” often in solitary confinement, without exercise or basic necessities, “for two years without a trial and support of lawyers.” He added that “many, many” similar cases of persecution, torture and oppression are taking place in mainland China.

But international pressure is increasing from many quarters. Dealing with China, speakers at the event recalled, means interacting with a “criminal state,” and targeted sanctions and various other international measures were proposed. Chinese law professor Teng Biao, who said he is a victim of “severe torture” at the hands of Chinese authorities, told those present it is “high time for the world to stop appeasing the Chinese government and pay attention to human rights in China.” 


Religious-Freedom Concerns

Human-rights activists worry that religious freedom may be the next to be suppressed in Hong Kong. In May last year, two Chinese religious sisters at the Vatican’s study mission in Hong Kong, a kind of unofficial nunciature in the absence of formal diplomatic ties between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China, were arrested by Beijing authorities on a visit home to mainland China.

After being held for three weeks, the sisters were then put under house arrest and prohibited from leaving the  mainland. Reuters reported that Beijing had ramped up its surveillance of the mission at the beginning of last year, signifying the country’s increasing grip on Hong Kong and a possible wish to close down the mission. 

Cardinal Zen said he had “much compassion” for the two sisters and advised that he had warned the Vatican not to employ young religious with families in mainland China, as it puts them in an “impossible situation” and makes the mission vulnerable to Chinese government surveillance. 

But despite these developments in Hong Kong, Pope Francis and the Vatican are remaining silent — a controversial approach but in accord with the Vatican’s general position on China, which officials believe better serves the long-term prospects for the Catholic Church in China. 

Rogers, however, views the Vatican’s silence as “dramatically undermining” the Church’s “moral authority” and as the “greatest ethical folly in recent times.” 

Added to reports in mainland China of a genocide against Muslim Uyghurs and other atrocities and the persecution of Christians, members of the Falun Gong and other religious minorities, Rogers said that “to be silent in the face of such horrors, at a time when other faith leaders are speaking out, brings shame on the Church.” 

Cardinal Zen noted that the Vatican’s silence is a long-running approach, part of recent decisions, which, he firmly believes, “have sold out and betrayed our Church in China.” These include the renewal last year of the 2018 Provisional Agreement on the appointment of bishops that remains secret and what he views as a more serious and “terrible thing”: the signing of pastoral guidelines concerning civil registration of clergy in China signed in 2019 that, he argues, encourages people to join the state-run church, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Organization. 

Although the Shanghai-born Cardinal Zen primarily criticizes the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, for the Vatican’s decisions regarding China, he also urges Pope Francis to listen to his and others’ concerns. 

“He talks very much about the periphery. We are the periphery, but it seems we have no say at all. Anything to do with our Church is carried out without consulting us,” he said. 


Cardinal Tong’s Perspective

Cardinal Parolin has not responded to a request for comment, preferring to eschew public statements on China, which he believes leads to fruitless controversy. But his approach to China tends to be supported by Cardinal Zen’s successor, Cardinal John Tong. 

Although officially retired, Cardinal Tong, 81, is serving as administrator of the Diocese of Hong Kong until a new bishop is appointed. In an interview last June, he had said the new security law in Hong Kong “has no effect on religious freedom,” as it is possible to “openly preach and hold religious ceremonies and participate in religious activities.” 

Asked by the Register on Jan. 15 if he still held that view and whether he was concerned that the Church in Hong Kong will be the next to face suppression after pro-democracy activists, Cardinal Tong said that “suppression is not anything new to the Catholic Church. It has been ongoing since the very early days of the Church.” 

“Just look at what our Lord Jesus suffered,” he added. “We choose, according to the freewill granted to us by our Lord, to follow Jesus. That includes bearing the cross, which is very heavy sometimes. We pray to our Father to remove this bitter chalice from us, yet not our will, but his will be done.” 

Cardinal Tong also reiterated his backing for the Vatican’s position, saying, “We support our Holy Father, successor of St. Peter, head of the universal Church. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Pope and members of the Curia at the Holy See will do the right thing at the right time. Justice and love will prevail in the long run.” 

For Cardinal Zen, the priority is “to let everyone know what’s happening here,” and he appealed to “those who believe in God,” that they “may pray for us.”

But he, too, stressed, “We are in the hands of God.” 

“He knows why such things are happening,” he said, “and may he bring everything to a good end.”